Program pairs international students with host families for holidays far from home

Featured image courtesy Pixabay user Element5Digital.

Noéline Prins was an international student from Sri Lanka, on the brink of Thanksgiving break but too far from home to return for a short period of time. She wanted to celebrate one of the United States’ biggest holidays, Thanksgiving, so she applied to a program that paired her with a host family for the holiday. What she got in return was an unforgettable experience and a new Miami-based family.

As a “family-oriented person,” Prins said she ended up creating a strong relationship with her holiday host family that has lasted through the years, since they first met in 2011.

After a hiatus, that program Prins enjoyed will once again be available to international students this semester. The Council of International Students and Organizations, University Christian Fellowship and InterVarsity’s Christian Fellowship Graduate & Faculty Ministries will offer students the chance to be matched with an American family in Miami for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Prins, a postdoctoral research scientist with the UM Department of Biomedical Engineering and member of UCF, said in 2011 campus ministries had host-facilities sign up, and the International Student and Scholar Services would match up 100 to 150 international students, so they would have their first traditional family-oriented Thanksgiving.

“Most international students never get invited to American homes in their entire time in the U.S.,” Prins said. “We really want to change this.”

The program includes only a Thanksgiving Day meal, but students and families can continue their relationship far beyond that, as in Prins’ case. She said the pairing gave her so much more than just a meal.

Throughout her time in Miami, Prins has been hospitalized twice and, even though she doesn’t have any relatives in the United States, she said her host family has been there for her during and after difficult situations.

“For the last six years, I’ve had a family in Miami,” she said. “Every Christmas I’ve been with them, every Thanksgiving I’ve been with them, every Easter. I truly feel a part of their family.”

UCF and IVCF-GFM have reached out to the churches in the community that supported student ministry in the past, and UCF made sure that the families are safe places for the students to visit. Some of these families have hosted students before and are looking to welcome students again. The only requirement for host families is a mandatory orientation, where someone from UCF meets at least one member from each family.

The program is also targeted to break cultural stereotypes and create a close-knit and diverse community that praises each other’s traditions, said Danica Magiste, international student ministry director of UCF and cabinet member of COISO.

“This program is about helping international students build friendships and learn more American culture,” said Magiste, a senior majoring in biology.

UCF wants to ensure international students are well-accommodated. On the application form for students, they need to indicate food preferences, languages they speak and mode of transportation.

So far 25 students have signed up for the program. There are 62 spots available, but Prins strongly encourages people to sign up as soon as possible because the program runs on a first-come, first-serve basis.

UCF is looking to continue the program into the Spring semester for Easter if there is enough student interest. The more students who sign up this semester, the more families will promote it for next time.

“Some students stay on campus because they can’t go home or they don’t have anywhere else to stay during the Thanksgiving break,” Magiste said. “This program will give them a day where they can visit an American home, eat a great meal and share things about their culture with the family.”

The deadline to register as a host family or as a student is Nov. 16. To apply, international students should fill out an online form. Applicants can call Sharry Siyuan Tong, the UCF international student ministry director, at 305-989-4481 with follow-up questions.

Featured image courtesy Pixabay user Element5Digital.